One of the striking features of Roberto Bolano's novels is the matter of style. It is essential, at least from my personal point, that I find that hard to ignore. In the Anglo phone world, with exceptions, style in literature has largely remained subservient to narration, or at least to a comprehension of narration, though there are abundant subversive examples that don't follow that norm. The fact that Bolano is a Latin American novelist must not be pointed as a point of difference alone. At another level, his novels, and I have read all that are available in English, do not just compel us to read because we are in search for a story but they prompt us to read them because of the immense matter of style.
As I have written here on numerous occasions about Bolano, I cannot find his novels any step away from a story that I can remember but largely closer to a stylistic insistence upon elegance. In other words, I would find it hard to read anything in this subversion of genres had it not been embellished by a pace and narrative style that is musical, very exhortatively dangerous, beautiful, seductive and hypnotically engaging. I find that in essence, the central concerns of his fiction are unchanging and yet each novel is a style away from another. It is interesting to note that this novel, The Skating Rink, was his first, and yet we are reading him from the last unto the first, following the massive successes of TSD and 2666.
The Bolano world is uniquely compelling. In this novel too, the characters have the same literary pretensions as elsewhere. One is an illegal migrant, a night watchman at a camping ground, a poet who could be Bolano himself , another a successful business man and the third a corrupt small time bureaucrat of the local socialist party in the town of Z, near Barcelona. The narrative unfolds in alternating monologues from these three, and involves the beautiful Nuria Marti, a figure skater who has been dropped from the Spanish national side. The middle-aged business man is clearly in love with her, and sensing her disappointment, decides to build a private skating rink for her, diverting state money and utilising government officials and resources. His main pleasure lies in watching her skate in this rink, hesitant as he is to declare his "love" for her. Nuria plays the game nicely, and is close to Moran, writer turned businessman, with whom she is having an affair. The whole thing reaches a crescendo in the end when an old woman, who has already been abused by the social welfare system, senses the idea behind the rink and decides to blackmail Nuria's lover. A dead body is discovered in the rink, the woman is murdered by another rookie writer, the night watchman decides to leave for Mexico, Nuria leaves for Barcelona and does nude photo shoots for a popular magazine, her lover, imprisoned but later released, tries to find Nuria but fails to do so.
We are seldom close to Nuria as a character though the Bolano types are in evidence here. I do not think that this novel reads like a detective story, though it functions like one. The doomed types are here, the poet, the rookie, the murderer, the fat politician who writes a report on the prison system whilst in prison and wins a prize and the dangerously reckless attitude that pervades these characters. They are always in the midst or fringes of poetry. One can call them as anarchic, in that the anarchy is of a romantic kind. This novel is at a disadvantage in being the kind that we can only read after his major works. The seeds of TSD and 2666 are already contained here, as the latter novels like Amulet had seeds seen in TSD. I do not think it useful to compare this novel with the more famous ones. Personally, I did not find the characters engaging in the beginning though towards the end, my sympathies are with them. Nuria lapses into nudity, Rosquelles into prison, Gaspar flees to Mexico amd Moran I don't remember.
Style is a matter of preference, also of aesthetics. There is always, I maintain, a longing behind these characters. They reflect the unending greed of the modern world, the pain of exile and migrations, the ennui of failure, the plaintive cry of doomed poetry. We may not always find these poets as ones we can say we know intimately, but it is fair to say that we are in their midst. It is in the recognition of this painful tenderness that the chief charm of this fiction lies. And also its truth.